By William G. Tapply
Bill Rohrbacher and I picked our lunch site for the shade of the lonely cottonwood, the gurgle of the river, and the upstream view. The brown-and-yellow Montana plains rolled off to distant horizons all around us, and the sky was as big and blue and cloudless as advertised. But we had eyes only for the water. As we munched our sandwiches, we watched about a dozen trout sticking their noses out of a shadowy 50-yard band of shallow slick water that flowed inside the main current against the high bank.
We had each of those trout located. They were all holding within a yard of the bank. We knew they were big by their unhurried, no-nonsense riseforms. No flashy attention-getting boil, no splash, no noise–just those noses poking rhythmically out of the water. After lunch we’d work our way upstream and take turns picking them off, one by one.
We pointed our rod tips at them and tried to guess their sizes and what fly they might like to eat. It was fun, just watching them and knowing they were there, and we were in no hurry. Bill assured me that the fish weren’t going anywhere, and neither were we.
Then we heard voices. “Oh-oh,” Bill muttered.
Three men with fly rods materialized on the high bank. They gazed across the river and talked about it for a minute. Then they skidded down the steep slope, sloshed through the calf-deep water–just upstream from where our lineup of big trout had been feasting–waded purposefully out to their waists, and went to work.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, lobbed big neon-pink strike indicators into the heavy current in front of them, high-sticked them along with their rod tips, lifted and lobbed again. It looked monotonous.
Our bank-sipping trout, of course, had disappeared.
The three anglers stuck to it for nearly an hour and caught a few smallish fish before they reeled in, splashed back to shore, and wandered away.
Bill and I waited, and less than a half hour later, little noses began to poke up in the flat water that we’d been watching.
Bill stood up. “Okay, Grandfather,” he said. “Let’s go bank shooting.”
We spent most of the afternoon with those bank sippers, working slowly upstream from fish to fish, taking turns. We waded on our knees much of the time, keeping a low profile and stalking the trout from directly downstream. We used 6X tippets and black deer-hair beetle patterns. We made short casts–20 or 30 feet, no more–and we kept our false casts off to the side to prevent shadows and flashes from spooking the fish. Perfect casts–dropping the fly two or three feet directly upstream, so it would drift onto their noses–usually brought a strike. Imperfect casts, a couple inches off to one side or the other, produced nothing.
We didn’t exactly pick them off one by one. We never do. We spooked a couple of them by sloppy wading. I dropped the butt of my leader on top of one nice trout, and in that foot-deep water he “blew up”–Bill’s term–with a swirling explosion.
One trout spurned Bill’s repeated offerings. He cursed it inventively, changed flies several times, then knelt on the river bottom, pressed his palms together, bowed deeply, and said, “Okay, God bless you, dammit.”
We raised a few that we failed to hook, or hooked briefly before they came unbuttoned. One–we guessed he would’ve gone 20 inches–busted me off. We ended up landing five of them, three 18-inch browns and two slightly larger rainbows. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, Bill landed four of them, although he and I don’t really think of it that way.
On a famous Montana river where Eastern sports like me like to brag about 30-fish days, I was replete. I’d raised several large trout, hooked a few, landed one, and lost another. Each encounter was memorable.
Look Before You Leap
Bill is a guide, and he goes bank-shooting every day he’s got a client who’s willing to catch fewer trout and have more fun doing it. When he realized that I found it as addictive as he did, he decided I was okay even if I had gone to college, and we became friends and fishing partners. He began to call me Grandfather (I’m a full 10 years older, though he’s much trout-wiser), and he told me that all his friends call him Bubba.
After our great afternoon, we talked about the three guys who had sloshed right through a lineup of the biggest, most catchable fish in the river. “It doesn’t surprise me,” said Bubba. “Most guys, they figure big trout want the big water and that big trout make big splashes when they rise. Of course, they’re wrong.” He scratched his beard and grinned. “It’s ironic, you know? When people fish from drift boats, they cast as close to shore as they can. But when they’re on foot, for some reason they ignore the banks and wade in up to their bellybuttons.”
In most rivers, Bill has taught me, big trout actually seem to prefer the flat, shallow water that flows against the bank, inside the heavier currents. Sheltered under overhanging brush or tight against boulders, they lie there in comfort and tilt up at their leisure to sip whatever comes their way. Rarely do we find small trout in the skinny bankside water where they would be most vulnerable to predators. Maybe when trout reach a certain size, they think they’re too big to interest herons and ospreys. Or maybe they think they’re too smart and survival-tuned to get caught.
They are pretty smart. But they can be caught.
Concentrating on the narrow bands of soft water near the banks has saved me from being overwhelmed by the size and complexity of big waters from Maine to Montana. Bubba has taught me how to step into unfamiliar rivers for the first time and consistently find feeding fish. I simply ignore the bigness of strange waters and concentrate on those rivers-within-rivers that flow softly against the banks.
Small trout waters are just like big ones, except–if you’ll excuse me–for their size. They contain the same complexity of currents and the same combinations of holding water and barren water as their outsize counterparts. On Western spring creeks and Eastern freestone streams alike, I concentrate my attention on the soft inside cushions of water. Trout like to lie with their sides almost brushing the bank, smack against logjams or under weed patties or in the shadows of overhanging bushes or tufts of grass, sometimes in water barely deep enough to cover their backs. Their delicate riseforms are easy to miss. They look like fingertips poking quickly out of the water.
In slow-moving skinny water, it doesn’t take much to spook feeding trout. Sharp eyes; delicate, precise casting; long, fine tippets; neutral-colored shirts and hats; and old-fashioned stealth are keys to stalking bank feeders. In the smooth, slack water next to the bank, trout have plenty of time to think before they eat. Anything tied to a tippet must behave naturally. It cannot drag, however slightly, and it must pass directly through the fish’s feeding lanes, because they will not move far to eat.
If we hunt hard enough, Bubba and I can usually find a few bank sippers eating off the surface, even when the river looks dead. We’ve had fine dry-fly fishing at midday while all the other anglers on the river were sitting on the bank waiting for the next hatch.
Bank sippers tend to be opportunistic feeders. Rarely is fly pattern the important variable in catching bank-feeding trout, although it’s fun how they can sometimes be maddeningly picky. Usually, it’s all in the approach and the presentation. Once you spot a bank sipper, pinning down its location is easy, because you have several points of reference–eight inches out and a foot down from that trailing branch, for example, or right on the inside seam of that tiny lick of current flowing around a boulder. Wear good polarizing sunglasses, because in shallow water you can often see the ghostlike shape of your target finning just under the surface. Get low, creep close, and position yourself for a straight upstream cast. Make your first shot count. Drop your fly two or three feet above him. Watch him as he spots it, flicks his tail, drifts under it, turns, lifts his snout, and shows you his open white mouth. Resist the impulse to strike too early, if you can.
Bank shooting combines the best parts of hunting and fishing, which is probably why it’s the kind of angling I have grown to love the most. Each fish is a challenge. It’s head to head, just that single trout and me alone on the river–or, even better, with Bubba kibitzing at my elbow. I don’t mind spending half an hour trying to catch it.
No two bank sippers are quite alike. Each one offers its particular challenge, and no matter which of us wins, the hunt provides me with another memory. It’s money in the bank.
Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here.